December 16, 2010
Lighting and Music in Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) review time
Darkness is a technique found throughout the horror film genre. Low lighting is the first hint towards the possibility of supernatural events, and the introductory scene takes place, almost without exception, at night. In Nightmare on Elm Street, the initial dream sequence is dark, taking place in an unknown and unfamiliar setting, where a solitary young girl is lost. From the first scene there is a tension between familiar horror elements (the darkness, the vulnerable teenage girl, the sense of being preyed upon) and estranging elements (the surreal location, the maze of Freddy Krueger’s dream-world, and the initial shot of his knives). The darkness in horror films is often accompanied by a return to normalcy, where the characters have to deal with their fears in the light of day, and are perhaps lulled into a false sense of security. The opening scene of the movie is clearly a nightmare, but the following scene is in the brightness of day outside a high school.
The music in Nightmare on Elm Street was composed to reinforce the opposition between estrangement and familiarity. The jarring music of the opening scene blends sharp, high notes with the sound effects for Freddy’s knives, unidentifiable sounds and laboured breathing. In this setting-establishing scene: "We hear an atmospheric synthesizer pad, modeled to some extent on vocal sounds and string harmonic, interspersed with hits on synthesized drums....interrupted by a more specifically synthesized sound that sweeps from high to low...before settling into an oscillating repeated two-note pattern behind a disembodied scream. The music at this point shifts to a more string-like tone but is overlaid with a wind sound and some low-level unidentifiable sounds." (Buhler 172)
The use of a synthesizer plays with the idea of estranging the familiar because although the sounds are almost reminiscent of vocal and string sounds, they are distorted and alien. It is difficult to be specific and conclusive when describing the music of this scene because many of the sounds are unidentifiable.
The music can play with expectations. According to composer Charles Bernstein, at times it leads “the audience into thinking they were watching a dream or makes them think they were watching reality” (d’Oliveira). The same music carries over between the waking scene where Nancy is lying in bed and puts the cross on the wall, and the next – the dream scene where Tina is killed. This music is less estranging than synthesized music of the opening dream, but a high-pitched drone similarly plays over the melody. The audience is unsure when Tina leaves the house whether she is awake or dreaming. The first hints of unidentifiable noises and synthesized sounds occur when she actually sees Freddy, and the audience then knows that it is a dream. Music in the film reinforces the tension in the fulfilment the audience’s expectations.
Buhler, James. “Music and the Adult Ideal in A Nightmare on Elm Street.” Lerner, Neil, ed. Music in the Horror Film: Listening to Fear. New York: Routledge, 2010. 168-186.
D’Oliveira, Miguel. “The Unseen through Music in the Horror Genre.” Dec. 6, 2010.